CODA is a movie about a teen who is the only hearing person in a family of Deaf parents and siblings. CODA stands for: child-of-Deaf-adult. The film is an English and American Sign Language remake of the French film La Famille Bélier. CODA won numerous awards this year including an Oscar for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. While the film did get some critique, it was also seen as a huge win for Deaf actors specifically and more broadly, a win for representation of disability in film.
People with disabilities aren’t always represented accurately or holistically in film. In an article for the Disability Studies Quarterly, Catalin Brylla talks about the tropes often used to portray disabled people on screen. There is the “supercrip”, where a person with a disability is shown to overcome impairment with “super-human . . . almost magical abilities . . . in order to elicit the respect of non-disabled viewers.”
There is the “inspiration” where the focus is on the extraordinary, rather than the ordinary life of the disabled person (compare this, say, with the scores of films—rom-coms, dramas, action flicks—portraying the everyday romance, work, reality ad-nauseum of so-called “able-bodied” people). Often when disabled people are featured in film there is an expectation from the audience for the disabled lead “to overcome, to inspire and stand as a shining example of the extraordinary power of the human spirit.” They are cast as upstanding, pure, moral characters who couldn’t possibly do any wrong.
Amidst all this is a growing movement of #actuallydisabled actors demanding that roles which portray people with disabilities be played by actors with disabilities. Too often an able-bodied actor plays a disabled actor in film. Take for example, Eddie Redmayne, who plays Stephen Hawking in the Theory of Everything. On the one hand, this is a brilliant film telling a brilliant story, but it also reinforces unconscious bias when Eddie Redmayne, and actors like him playing similar roles, go on to win Oscars for their incredible one-off performance of what is just everyday life for many disabled people.
Catlin Brylla proposes an alternative. What if disability were more commonly seen in film, “neither in the background or the foreground” but as an everyday ordinary part of life?
This is where we meet the man who has been ill for 38 years in our gospel reading today. He is laying amongst the “invalids—the blind, the lame, and the paralysed”. It’s one of the more peculiar healing stories in the Bible. The story doesn’t fall neatly into any one of the usual disability tropes. The man who is ill doesn’t make it to the healing pool by overcoming his disability on his own with superhuman, magical abilities. He makes it very clear to Jesus that he’s been trying to make his way to this pool for many years with no success. Someone keeps cutting in line ahead of him. They’ve got someone to help them or they’ve got some other means for getting in and out of the pool.
Neither does the man fit neatly into this story as an inspiration or a shining moral example. He’s not like others who are healed by Jesus who go off thanking Jesus, praising God and rejoicing. If we were to read on, we would learn that when the authorities see this man healed and carrying his mat, they call him out for working on the sabbath and breaking the law. And the man goes and tells them it was Jesus who made him do it! He’s kind of an ungrateful jerk!
So what does this story teach us about disability and accessibility in society? I think it teaches us that true accessibility means you can be a jerk sometimes like every other human being on the planet and still have access to fundamental human rights—like healthcare. I think it teaches us that you can have a disability and have your story told in media and film without your disability being either in the foreground or in the background; it can just be an everyday part of your life.
I think it teaches us that when it comes to accessibility in society and even in our church, we can’t expect all disabled people to fit one mold. Some people who use wheelchairs or walkers might like to sit at the back when they come to church, or they might like to sit at the front, or they might like to move out of their chair and sit in the accessible pew half way up. Just as folks who don’t use a wheelchair might like to sit closer to the front of the church or join the peanut gallery in the back, or sit somewhere middle of the road because we’re Anglican, after all.
Finally, I think this story tells us that God doesn’t rest until all of creation has reached its fullest human potential, meaning a life of dignity, meaning, and wholeness—no matter who you are or how your body shows up in the world. Jesus heals this man on the sabbath, thereby working and breaking the law according to the religious authorities of the day. But maybe Jesus was making a point: that sabbath is meant for the seventh day, when God had finished working, when creation was complete? By healing this man on the sabbath perhaps Jesus is saying that God’s work in the world isn’t finished yet, isn’t complete until dignity and life has been restored for all people? Amen.
Work cited: Catlin Brylla, “Bypassing the Supercrip Trope in Documentary Representations of Blind Visual Artists” in Disability Studies Quarterly, accessed online at https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/6485/5092